The Best Latin American Players in the NBA
While pro baseball has seen an influx of players from Latin America in recent years, basketball does not enjoy quite as much popularity in those countries, but still, a whole host of top NBA players—enough to fill an entire rotation—are Americans from south of the border.
Whether it's called Latin America or "Iberian America" (because of Brazil's imperial heritage from the dominion of Portugal), there are numerous elites setting an example of pro success in the world's top basketball league. For the purposes of this list and for sociocultural reasons, the likes of the U.S. Virgin Islands (Tim Duncan) and Jamaica (Roy Hibbert) are not included.
From future Hall of Fame Argentine guard Manu Ginobili to big-bodied Brazilian center Tiago Splitter, these are the best NBA players from Latin American.
Francisco Garcia, Dominican Republic
The pinnacle of Francisco Garcia's basketball career likely came as a junior at Louisville, when he helped lead the Cardinals to the 2005 Final Four, but he's proven to be a very useful NBA player since then. After the Sacramento Kings drafted him late in the first round in 2005, Garcia worked to maintain his career as a three-and-D guy over 10 seasons.
This year, the bottom finally dropped out for the 33-year-old swingman from Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. In part due to the smoldering tire fire called the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Houston Rockets were able to swing a midseason trade to acquire defensive forward Corey Brewer, essentially a better, younger version of Garcia. Garcia, unfortunately, was waived and did not catch on with a new team.
Such is the business of sports, but Garcia proved his worth in the 2013 playoffs when—after seeing just 18 games for the Rockets during the regular season and averaging 6.4 points per game—he upped that scoring to 10.7 points per game, which included three starts in his six playoff games.
The Rockets lost that conference quarterfinals series to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now that the team looks poised to contend for the Western Conference title, he finds himself on the outside looking in.
Jose Juan Barea, Puerto Rico
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle knows the worth of a veteran like J.J. Barea. As he stated, via Mavs beat writer Dwain Price's Twitter: "He was a good fit here. He'd be a good fit with any team. He knows how to play. He's a competitor. He’s a battler."
While some take issue with the 6'0" Barea's penchant for exaggerating contact and getting foul calls, or with his noticeable deficiencies on defense, he's proven to be a very useful offensive player and important bench contributor over nine seasons now.
He was so good for the Mavericks they decided to bring him back this season following his three-year exile in the vast northern expanse where the Minnesota Timberwolves play. Puerto Rico it is not.
And while Barea has only averaged 18.8 minutes per game for his career, and while his 17.7 minutes this season were his lowest averaged since 2007-08, he remained in line with his impressive per-36 numbers for his career, via Basketball-Reference.com: 15.6 points and 6.6 assists per game.
Leandro Barbosa, Brazil
Known as "Leandrinho" in his native Brazil, Leandro Barbosa has fit the profile of a soccer player for quite some time now. Picked late in the first round of the 2003 draft, the slim combo guard has run tirelessly up, down and across the basketball court during stints with the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics, the Suns again and currently with the Golden State Warriors.
While playing a reserve role for much of his career, Barbosa has long been a productive member of the bench mob, acting like a 75th-minute substitution in soccer. He brings energy and speed off the bench, which made him ideally suited for Mike D'Antoni's "seven seconds or less" offense in Phoenix.
Barbosa enjoyed his most prolific season as a pro in 2006-07, averaging 18.1 points in 32.7 minutes per game despite starting only 12 times in his 82 appearances that season. That garnered him Sixth Man of the Year honors, but the 32-year-old's scoring and playing time have steadily decreased since then.
However, he's far from finished. He logged 66 games with the Warriors this season as they cruised to the best record in the league, and more significantly, he recorded a player efficiency rating of 15.3 in his 14.9 minutes per game, via Basketball-Reference. The last time he posted a higher PER was 2008-09, and Leandrinho is still contributing in a big way to the NBA's finest squad.
Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela
If you don't know Greivis Vasquez, you're obviously not a Maryland fan. The young man from Venezuela attended Montrose Christian in Rockville, Maryland, the very same prep school that produced Kevin Durant.
Then Vasquez played college ball for Maryland, where he became the school's first player with a 40-point game in 15 years and recorded the first triple-double in 22 years. His track record there helped him warrant a late first-round pick in 2010 by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Given his pedigree known to Maryland fans, it likely did not come as a surprise to them when Vasquez managed to lead the NBA in assists in 2012-13, averaging nine per game and logging 78 outings with the New Orleans Hornets.
Of course, he was helped indirectly by Rajon Rondo tearing his ACL in January of that season, but an assists title is an assists title. Vasquez didn't even reach four assists per game this season, but he is playing a key role in the postseason with the Toronto Raptors.
Luis Scola, Argentina
Though most often discussed in the context of the Indiana Pacers' unwise 2013 trade with the Phoenix Suns—which netted Phoenix young talents in Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, plus draft picks—Luis Scola has proven to be quietly very useful in Indy. Even as a reserve, the Argentine forward can still put up a game like he had in the April 5 victory over the Miami Heat: 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting with 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes.
As the 34-year-old Scola told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth, he has no plans for retirement anytime soon:
I know people don't play that much longer after 35, but I'm feeling well. I don't know how fast the process is from the moment you start feeling close to the end versus the actual end. But I'm not feeling close to the end. I've got energy and I feel I can still do this and I'm still having fun and I can work out hard and play hard every day. As long as all that's still there I don't see me being close to retirement.
The Pacers are on the hook for $6.65 million next season before Scola hits free agency again, per Spotrac.com, and he sounds like he's ready to put up solid numbers in his contract year regardless of age.
Nene Hilario, Brazil
Nene Hilario has one of the best names in the NBA, making it unfortunate that Brazilian naming conventions typically leave out the "Hilario" altogether. And unlike fellow Brazilian big men Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, simply "Nene" will suffice for the 32-year-old from Sao Carlos.
Nene merited the seventh pick in 2002 draft by the New York Knicks, but he spent the first decade of his career playing for the Denver Nuggets after being traded with Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson for Antonio McDyess.
A gifted offensive player in the paint, Nene led the league in field-goal percentage in 2010-11, which was his last full season in Denver before joining the Washington Wizards. Injuries have limited his career, costing him almost all of his 2005-06 and 2007-08 seasons, as well as chunks of time over each of the last four seasons. It's a shame, because he posts a tidy line when he's on court with career averages of 12.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Anderson Varejao, Brazil
Speaking of injury-prone Brazilian centers, Anderson Varejao appeared to have a golden opportunity before him when LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The pair had played together in Cleveland for six seasons, and it seemed possible they could form a veteran core around which the younger and more inexperienced players could jell.
Instead, Varejao tore his Achilles in December, which ended his season. The brave Brazilian worked hard on his rehab and wanted to come back in time for the playoffs, telling Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com about returning this season: "I wanted to give it a try, but I'm being told to continue my rehab so I can be ready for the start of next season. It's hard. I want to play. I'm progressing, but I'm going to listen to the team. They have my best interest."
Varejao has only averaged 34 games played over his last five seasons, and while he's a potential nightly double-double contributor when healthy, the Cavs may well have moved on from the 32-year-old center.
The team acquired Russian center Timofey Mozgov, 28, in an early January trade with the Denver Nuggets. Mozgov slotted right in, and with him in the lineup, the Cavs finished the season with a 34-9 record, leaving Varejao's role with the team perilously unclear.
Tiago Splitter, Brazil
Much like DJ Khaled, all Tiago Splitter does is win, win, win. The Brazilian center won a pair of Spanish League titles while playing for Saski Baskonia, and he claimed both the league MVP and league finals MVP in 2010. Then he joined the San Antonio Spurs and established himself as a valuable starting pivot, earning him a hefty four-year contract worth $36 million, which he inked in 2013. The next season, he won his first NBA championship in 2014.
Don't think of Splitter in the same vein as Luc Longley or Toni Kukoc—foreign-born big men as creditable cogs on a championship team brimming with talent. Splitter occupies a more central role for the Spurs, and his subtle value is never more evident than when he's not on the court:
Splitter is a sneaky important player against mobile PFs like Griffin. Spurs can survive w/ Diaw and spot mins from Baynes, but TS is big— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 16, 2015
With the Spurs facing a Chuck Norris-tough series in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers, the health of Splitter and his balky calf could make all the difference.
Al Horford, Dominican Republic
Al Horford hails from the Dominican Republic, a poor island nation not known for producing pro basketball players, but Al had pedigree. His father, Tito Horford, played college ball at Miami and was selected in the second round of the 1988 NBA draft, playing for a couple of seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. Al's uncle, Kelly Horford, also played college basketball during the '90s.
After his family moved to Michigan when he was a teenager, Horford's development on the court came in leaps and bounds. He attended the University of Florida (where he won consecutive national championships) and built himself into a top-flight talent worthy of the third overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Atlanta Hawks.
Horford proved to be worth every bit of his draft position, getting named All-Rookie first team and picking up three All-Star nods so far in his career. While he's proven himself a nightly double-double threat with career averages of 14.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, Horford's only problem has been his pesky pecs. A torn left pectoral muscle limited him to 11 games in the 2011-12 campaign, and he played just 29 games in 2013-14 after tearing his right pectoral.
A healthy campaign this season helped him lead the Hawks to 60 wins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. He also shared January Player of the Month with the other four members of the Atlanta Hawks starting five, as the team won every game that month. And when Horford turns 29 in June, he'll be hoping that an NBA Finals berth is his birthday present.
Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, Manu Ginobili does not play for the San Antonio Spurs after a 2008 trade to the Chicago Bulls. However, in this universe, that never happened.
The San Antonio Express-News' Dan McCarney painted a moment in time during that spring, where Ginobili had just won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, and coach Gregg Popovich jokingly wondered to reporters if there was any resentment on the Argentine's part about coming off the bench.
A different player (and a different front office) might have taken the same route as the Oklahoma City Thunder did with James Harden—"we can't pay him too, so let's trade him"—but Ginobili remained with the mighty Spurs, and it paid off with another championship in 2014.
As Ginobili told McCarney, speaking fluent Spursish:
Being a backup doesn’t really mean I had a limited role. I prefer the quality of life, also. Of being on a team that wins, that does well, that you can be a part of. Pop, too, helped us stay together. He always created groups that could relate to each other, in a winning environment. So I never found it necessary to go somewhere else.
Heaven, he's in heaven. The 57th pick in the 1999 draft is bound for the Hall of Fame one day, and every time you count him out, he unleashes more fury. Just when he appeared to be done for his career and out of gas in the 2013 playoffs, he exploded in Game 5 of the NBA Finals for 24 points and 10 assists, pushing the Miami Heat to the brink. The next year facing the Heat again, he dropped jaws with this dunk.